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Building Relationships with Parents and Families

May 21, 2021

Building relationships with parents and families.

As we attempt to move back to a more pre-pandemic life, but still with some level of Covid restriction affecting everything we do, communication has taken on a hybrid format that might be here to stay. This then may be a good time to review your school’s systems of communication. For instance. we know of many schools that are considering keeping parents’ evenings as an online format. But should you be considering a blended approach to ensure you capture digitally disadvantaged families as well as those who prefer to stay online?
In this blog post, we will look at what the research says about effective communication with parents and share what has worked well to engage parents in recent weeks.

Systems of communication
A school with an effective communication strategy will use a combination of the following to communicate with parents:

  • Phone calls
  • Social media
  • Letters
  • Texts/instant messaging
  • Website
  • Email
  • Home learning platforms.
  • School website
  • Parent Pay
  • School Communication App

Research suggests that the best way to keep parents engaged in their children’s learning is to communicate little and often and a recent study by the Education Endowment Fund suggests text messaging can be particularly effective. The Study found regular text messaging, including positive and negative communications and reminders about homework improved attendance as well as attainment in English and maths. The inclusion of positive messaging opens the channels and facilitates a way to share any concerns. Parents tell us that they commonly only hear from the school when there is something negative to report. It’s often a crisis that drives communication, but time made to make regular positive contact is an investment that will pay off in the long term.

Parents are more digitally aware than ever. Digital communication is indeed a great way to engage but be mindful of excluding some parent groups. For example, we know that although letters have a place, they often go unread. The longer the letter, the less likely parents will read it. Still, for those parents who don’t have access to technology, letters are vitally necessary to keep in touch.
Make sure your letters and emails are not too long or full of jargon. Keep letters and emails short and succinct with links to your website for those who want further information.

Parents and caregivers have told us that they can find it difficult to speak directly with teachers who are busy. Have a process in place for following up phone calls and look for common themes. Are parents ringing up for information that you could share with them more easily or that they could access in other ways?
We also hear that some receptionists are unapproachable. If a parent is already nervous about contacting the school, this will make them much less likely to engage in future. Front of house and support staff are the first and most frequent contact point for most parents but have the least training. As they are often from the same community as the families, they are ambassadors and advocates for parents both formally and informally. To develop a whole-school community welcome to families and a respectful and universal understanding of what the school’s ethos is all about, bring non-teaching staff on board and help them feel supported by ensuring they receive good quality customer service training. At all times, schools should be friendly, welcoming and helpful.

Communicating with families who speak English as an additional language
You must accommodate families who don’t speak English. Work out how you can communicate; be consistent and maintain face to face interactions. It’s easy to make assumptions around language, culture and religious practices. Instead, confirm with the family what their needs are and ensure all families have the opportunity to access all aspects of school life.

It is not appropriate to use the child or another parent as a translator for formal or sensitive communications. Instead, allow parents to bring someone with them that they feel comfortable with.

When sharing information about learning, make sure you show and model how to do something as well as telling. You can use this approach for something as complex as a parent workshop as well as ensuring that smaller pieces of information are correctly understood, e.g. giving pictures of the uniform, rather than just a written description. Remember, over 70% of communication is nonverbal so use positive body language to make families feel welcome.

Make an effort to understand the different cultures within your school. Do your research and ask families about their culture. This is such a valuable learning experience and an asset to your work. Let them be the expert and contribute to the learning.

Technology to Support who speak English as an additional language
There are many technologies with built-in translation functions that schools and families can access quite easily. We’re not experts, but these are a few that have been brought to our attention as being helpful in this way:

  • Google Translate. Translates text from one language to another.
  • Class Dojo. To action the translation function, the family need to set up a default home language first.
  • Microsoft Translator. Found in the Office 365 Learning Tools. As Office 365 is education-focused, this might be better matched to school language than other resources.
  • Microsoft Word Immersive Reader is a good tool for families with poor literacy skills as it reads out the translated text.
    Be aware that you will need other solutions for families who are unable to access technology.

Building relationships face to face:
The most effective way of building relationships is face to face—a considerable challenge for us all during lockdown. As things open, we’re hoping that schools will retain the good practice they have developed in using technology as well as returning to face to face contact. Meeting people in person at the school gates or classroom doors is essential to build and maintain relationships with families.

One primary school has told us that they have experienced improved communication with parents since school resumed by being available outside of the classroom, socially distanced, of course. Previously they operated an open-door policy with parents welcome to come into the classroom to speak to staff as children prepared to start the day. Now, with teachers making themselves available outside, they have noticed: a smoother entry for children; a better start to the learning process (less distraction); and better opportunities for teachers to approach parents and for parents to speak to teachers. Children are also more aware of the communication between staff and their parents as they can see it happening in the playground.

Workshops are a fantastic way of engaging parents in learning. They are opportunities to bring parents into school to show them what is being done in the classroom and model how they can support learning at home. But don’t underestimate the importance of the language you use to tell them all about it. Indeed, even calling the sessions ‘workshops’ can be a turn off for some parents. It can be reminiscent of their own time at school and indicates a level of difficulty. So instead, use phrases such as ‘Find out about…’ or ‘Do You Want to…’. Think of an inviting name, set clear beginning and finish times, run them 1:1 or in groups, and provide snacks.

For reluctant parents, a ‘buddy’ system might work. Invite parents to bring a friend or match them up with a parent who can support them. Think about developing a Parent Champion system at your school.

Family Home Learning.
Family home learning is an easy, almost hidden way of aligning learning with events or topics. Details and guidance must be given with the activity so parents know how and why they should be doing them. FHL learning is about developing life skills and knowledge together as a family. Make family home learning part of your homework policy, so families know what to expect, how to use it and why it is important. It is a way of supporting families and letting them know how they can help with learning without knowing the curriculum.

A few other ‘quick wins’ when communicating with parents.

  • Use transition and induction as an opportunity to convey how to communicate with the school. Tell parents who are key members of staff are and how and when to contact them. Knowing what to expect in terms of communication will help them feel welcome.
  • Have names of teachers, along with their job role and a photo on your school website. Being able to check who you are communicating with in this way can be reassuring for parents.
  • Have key non-teaching pastoral staff.
  • Include non-teaching staff in training events and CPD objectives.
  • Communicate little and often through a variety of channels. Ensure meaningful and positive messages are sent as well as the more negative communications.
  • Share good news to your whole school community and share updates about school events.
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms. Have a glossary on the website for reference when you must use terms that parents may not understand.
  • Have a specific parent page on your school website. Is it parent-friendly? Can they access what they need in just a couple of clicks?
  • Keep parents up to date with what is going on, basic day to day information in small chunks. For example: PE days, what we are learning this week, how to help, cookery ingredients, timetable changes, exam dates and times etc.
  • Notice on the outside of classroom doors, notice boards. Repeat and in different formats.

In conclusion
It is easy to assume that some parents aren’t engaged in learning because we don’t see them in school. This assumption has to be challenged. We mustn’t fall into the trap that the people who are seen and heard most become the sum voice of the school. All parents want to engage in and support their child’s learning. Schools need to have a range of offers and not make assumptions about what engagement in learning looks like as it looks different for everyone. We need to remove the assumption that parents who aren’t visibly present aren’t engaging in their child’s learning.

Schools need to understand better the barriers some parents are facing. The face to face conversation is an excellent tool for building relationships and making sure families are accessing all the opportunities that schools have to offer. The range of tech skills that schools and parents have gained in the last year must be retained and utilised.

Texting Parents: EEF Summary


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